We Can't Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We're Starting a New One.
I left my post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to build a university in Austin dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.
So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.
There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows.
These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?
The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.
The picture among undergraduates is even bleaker. In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe. Nearly 70% of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports at least 491 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Roughly half were successful.
On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals. Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago scientist who has objected to aspects of affirmative action, was recently disinvited from delivering a prominent public lecture on planetary climate at MIT. Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, finally quit in September after years of harassment by faculty and administrators. Kathleen Stock, a professor at University of Sussex, just resigned after mobs threatened her over her research on sex and gender.
We had thought such censoriousness was possible only under oppressive regimes in distant lands. But it turns out that fear can become endemic in a free society. It can become most acute in the one place—the university—that is supposed to defend “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”
The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized. At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite. Amidst the brick and ivy, these students entertain ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living.
The priority at most other institutions is simply to avoid financial collapse. They are in a desperate contest to attract a dwindling number of students, who are less and less capable of paying skyrocketing tuition. Over the last three decades, the cost of a degree from a four-year private college has nearly doubled; the cost of a degree from a public university has nearly tripled. The nation’s students owe $1.7 trillion in loans.
And to what end? Nearly 40% of those who pursue a college degree do not attain one. We should let that sink in. Higher education fails 4 in 10 of its students. A system that so brazenly extracts so much from so many without delivering on its basic promises is overdue for a reckoning.
The warped incentives of higher education—prestige or survival—mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction. Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven “student experiences”—from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities. In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit.
It’s not just that we are failing students as individuals; we are failing the nation. Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.
Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped. If these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?
At some future point, historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass. And perhaps by then we will have reformed our colleges and universities, restoring them as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse.
But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.
I mean that quite literally.
As I write this, I am sitting in my new office (boxes still waiting to be unpacked) in balmy Austin, Texas, where I moved three months ago from my previous post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis.
I am not alone.
Our project began with a small gathering of those concerned about the state of higher education—Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and I—and we have since been joined by many others, including the brave professors mentioned above, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot and Peter Boghossian.
We count among our numbers university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen.
We are also joined by journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.
We are a dedicated crew that grows by the day. Our backgrounds and experiences are diverse; our political views differ. What unites us is a common dismay at the state of modern academia and a recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.
It will surely seem retro—perhaps even countercultural—in an era of massive open online courses and distance learning to build an actual school in an actual building with as few screens as possible. But sometimes there is wisdom in things that have endured.
The university as we know it today is an institution that originated in 11th-century Europe. The fact that there have been universities for nearly a thousand years—despite all the extraordinary changes in the nature of knowledge and communications technology in that time—tells us something important.
We believe human beings think and learn better when they gather in dedicated locations, where they are, to some extent, insulated from the quotidian struggle to make ends meet, and where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom.
We believe that the purpose of education is not simply employment, but human flourishing, which includes meaningful employment. We are therefore also reconceiving the relationship between a liberal education and the demands of our dynamic and fluid professional world.
Our rigorous curriculum will be the first designed in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences. Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.
This core purpose—the intrepid pursuit of truth—has been at the heart of education since Plato founded his Academy in 387 B.C. Reviving it would produce a resilient (or “antifragile”) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively. Such graduates will be the future leaders best prepared to address humanity’s challenges.
An education rooted in the pursuit of truth is the antidote to the kind of ignorance and incivility that is everywhere around us. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed: “Education . . . means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.”
We expect to face significant resistance to this project. There are networks of donors, foundations, and activists that uphold and promote the status quo. There are parents who expect the status quo. There are students who demand it, along with even greater restrictions on academic freedom. And there are administrators and professors who will feel threatened by any disruption to the system.
We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.
To the rest—to those of you who share our sense that something fundamental is broken—we ask that you join us in our effort to renew higher education. We welcome all who share our mission to pursue a truly liberating education—and hope that other founders follow our example.
It is time to restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom. You will find all three at our new university in Austin.
We’ve devoted a lot of ink at Common Sense to all the things that have been lost or broken. This week, happily, we are focusing entirely on what comes next—and we are thrilled to kick it off with news of this audacious project. Up tomorrow: Antonio García Martínez on the metaverse.